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‘It is important to understand how the excessive manufacture, trade, procurement and stockpiling of weapons can exacerbate war and make it more lethal and dangerous, or how this affects health, destroys the environment or hinders development?’
(Kofi Annan - Report Foreword)
In November 2000 the Secretary General of the UN commissioned a report on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Education. Almost two years later, with the assistance of a group of governmental experts from 10 countries and after extensive consultation with NGOs and civil society, the report was complete. The aims of the United Nations Study on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Education included defining disarmament and non-proliferation education; assessing the current state of disarmament and non-proliferation education; recommending ways to promote education and training at all levels of formal and informal education, in particular educators, parliamentarians, municipal leaders, military officers and government officials.
what is disarmament education?
So, what is disarmament and non-proliferation education? Disarmament education examines the need to reduce and one day eliminate armaments, with the aim of reducing both the likelihood and severity of armed conflict. It focuses on the actual process of disarmament, and the action required to achieve it. It also considers the interaction between technology and warfare and the socio-economic benefits of disarmament.
Non-proliferation education is a subset of disarmament education. Whereas disarmament education examines the need to reduce the number and power of existing armaments, non-proliferation education focuses on the prevention of further production and distribution of all weapons.
‘The overall objective of disarmament and non-proliferation education is to impart knowledge and skills to individuals to empower them to make their contribution, as national and world citizens, to the achievement of concrete disarmament and non-proliferation measures and the ultimate goal of general and complete disarmament under effective international control.’(Report Summary)
The goal of disarmament and non-proliferation education is to empower people to learn how to think about issues rather than what to think. It aims to deepen understanding of the factors that foster and undermine peace, to encourage attitudes and actions that promote peace and to provide the relevant information and knowledge on armaments to enable well informed decisions.
The UN has put a lot of time and effort into promoting disarmament and non-proliferation education. In 1978 the first General Assembly special session on disarmament urged governments, NGOs and international institutions ‘to take steps to develop programmes of education for disarmament and peace studies at all levels’. In 1980 the UNESCO World Congress on Disarmament Education made numerous recommendations on measures to promote research and education on disarmament. In 1982 the UN World Disarmament Campaign was launched to inform, educate, and to generate public understanding and support for arms limitation and disarmament. The 1999 International Year for the Culture of Peace was established and extended to an International Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World in 2000.
All this time and effort should surely have had a positive effect in terms of education in the UK. So, are children in schools well informed about the spread of nuclear weapons and their possible consequences? Are they aware of measures to control and reduce the supply of arms? Do they even question the fact that the UK possesses nuclear weapons and is one of the leading arms exporting countries? Unfortunately the answer to all three questions is probably “no” in most cases. This is despite all the positive work by the UN, and many dedicated educators and parents.
Children learn from what they see and experience of the adult dominated world. Most children probably think that nuclear weapons have kept the world at peace since their invention - this is what adults and children alike are taught to believe. Many children are probably aware that Weapons of Mass Destruction are a very bad thing and that some evil foreign dictators have used them in the past and threaten to use them again, or sell them to ‘terrorists’. But they probably do not think of nuclear weapons as WMD - they are a clean, safe, modern technology - despite the much greater destructive power of nuclear weapons over chemical or biological weapons. They are also probably not aware that the 5 declared nuclear countries have all committed, in treaties at least, to nuclear disarmament, yet none shows signs of actual disarmament and some are still producing new nuclear weapon systems.
If children in this country know anything about the concept of proliferation it is unlikely that they think we are major proliferators. They are more likely to believe that it is ‘uncivilised’, ‘barbaric’, ‘rogue’ states far away that have the really dangerous weapons. The UK is the 4th largest exporters of arms and between 1996 and 2000 the US sold 47% of the world’s weapons. And if children know anything about disarmament it probably relates to the disarmament of Saddam Hussein, whom the ‘west’ could not trust to be responsible with his weapons of mass destruction.
The mixed messages that young people perceive - it’s OK for some people (but not everyone) to have and sell lots of weapons; peace is guaranteed by the threat of destruction; you should get rid of your weapons but we’ll keep ours - completely undermine any efforts to educate them into better practices.
Disarmament and non-proliferation education can play an important role in promoting a culture of peace but the conduct of international affairs makes a much greater difference. Adults and children alike know so much more about environmental issues than they do about disarmament and non-proliferation issues. The task, therefore, is to change this situation so that younger generations grow up with the common sense knowledge and skills to deal with the problems of armaments - in just the same way as young people nowadays are aware of a variety of positive ways for dealing with environmental problems.
The UN Study on Disarmament and Non-proliferation Education asks governments to inform the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs on steps taken to implement the recommendations of the report. Why not write to your MP to ask them to tell you what the government has done to promote disarmament and non-proliferation education in the UK?